Memoir

Neglecting the body

"TAKE UP GOLF," they said. Both of them within the space of a week. The acupuncturist and the alternative healer. It was not the advice I had expected. Not from them. They were both rather spiritual people. I would not have been surprised at being told to meditate. Make contact with your higher self. Even renounce the world. But golf. Shades of P.G. Wodehouse. It sounded disturbingly serious.

"You live too much in your head," they said. Both of them. "All those books, all that mental activity. You neglect the body."

As if the head were not part of the body. But I knew what they meant. And indeed they were right. Not necessarily about taking up golf. But about living in my head and neglecting the body. That, after all, I might have responded, was the nature of being a writer. That was why I had chosen to become a writer. My preoccupation had been with my body of work. And now my other body, my forgotten physical body, had suffered and rebelled.

 

"SOMETIMES," MORRIS WEST told me, "the Lord sends us a warning." He suggested I paid heed.

I knew I took too little account of the body. When I began the first of the long round of visits to specialists, it became all too clear.

"Height?" the nurse asked.

"Five foot something. Can't remember. Eight, nine, ten?"

As an adolescent I had been tall. Too tall, gawky and gangling and awkward.

"He'll make six foot," they said. Parents, relatives, neighbours. But he didn't. He stopped somewhere short of it. The first of many destinations never reached. So whatever I was, five foot eight, nine, ten, was a failure and I deigned not to remember it.

"Weight?"

"I've no idea."

I wasn't someone who stepped regularly on the bathroom scales. I had no bathroom scales. And anyway, I no longer knew the measurements. At school we had laboriously learned ounces, pounds, stones, hundredweights and their confusing abbreviations, oz, lb, cwt.

"What are these, then?" asked Billy Pugh, confronted by an arithmetic problem with so many dozs.

"Dounces?"

And then all that learning had been jettisoned in favour of whatever it was we were measured in now. I no longer know. Our bearings have been taken away from us. We are left powerless, disfranchised, innumerate. I am out of touch with the measurements of our time, as with so many other things.

Including my weight.

The nurse looked at me oddly. I knew what she was thinking. He is out of touch with his body.

Alienation, we used to call it in the committed years.

 

AFTER THE NURSE came the specialist. A non-alternative specialist. He looked like he might play golf, indeed. He read through my details. Writer. The only thing I knew for certain. And even that was beginning to look a bit uncertain.

"I always wanted to write," the specialist said.

The gloomy room with its assorted browns, late 1940s end of the Raj furniture. The three-quarters empty bookcase with a few tattered drug directories. The gleaming, vile, new machine uncomfortably amid it all, high-tech and alien, like an abandoned spaceship from a distant planet. No abduction from here.

"I wanted to write medical novels," said the specialist.

He ran the ultrasound scanner over my terrified frame. The roar of blood coursing through arteries and veins boomed into my ears. The sound of the body's processes left me quivering in horror. I tried to tell myself it was an electronic artefact I was hearing. Little green lights leapt from the screen before my eyes.

"But it's hopeless, of course," he went on. "The demands of the genre are impossible. They insist on a happy ending. Healing and all that. Snatched from the jaws of the grave. Whereas" – he pressed the cold metal hard against my non-resisting flesh – "the reality is you get sick, suffer and die."

I sickened, suffered. An out-of-body experience was imminent.

"So what's he expect me to do?" the specialist asked. His spotted bow tie and his horn-rimmed glasses gave him the air of a French philosopher. Or an interviewer from the archaic days of television.

"Who?" I whispered, from a great distance.

"This doctor fellow who referred you."

"I don't really know," I said. "I suppose see what's the matter, see if anything can be done."

"Oh, nothing can be done," the specialist said.

The bow tie lit up in syncopation with the ultrasound screen.

"And we know what's the matter."

"Oh."

"Would I have ever read anything you've written?" the specialist asked, sliding the scanner round on its revolting gel.

"Could have," I said, but my voice exuded no confidence.

"What name do you write under?"

"My own."

"Can't say I've come across it," said the specialist. "So many of you chaps around. What are you writing at the moment? If anything?"

"At the moment? Reviews, mainly."

And not many of them.

"Reviews, eh? I love a good review. Takes me back to medical school. Cabaret. Chaps dressed up in dresses. Girls in dinner jackets and net stockings. Naughty songs. Political satire. Those were the days. What hopes we had then."

"No, I meant book reviews."

"Oh, them," the specialist said. "Never read them."

"Can't say I do, either," I said.

"Waste of everybody's time then, aren't they?"

"I suppose they are."

"But there again," said the specialist, "what else is there to do with time? Just hang in there till the mortal blow."

"I suppose so."

"No doubt about it."

He went off to wash his hands. Little green lights flashed on the machine as before. I wondered if they flashed all the time, if there was any connection between my processes and its. Between my processes and anything. My awareness, for instance.

"Should I travel?" I asked.

"If you've got anywhere to go."

"I mean, would it be best to wait for six months, or something?"

"Can't see why. Still going to be the same old body, isn't it?"

He ushered me out of the surgery and back to the reception desk. A sign proclaimed PLEASE SETTLE YOUR ACCOUNT BEFORE LEAVING. It sounded disturbingly metaphysical.

I stumbled out into the remorseless Australian sun, skin cancers rising from the flesh before my eyes, passers-by crashing to the ground from sunstroke and urban pollution. I found the car park. HAVE YOU PAID AND DISPLAYED? Yes, I have displayed, now I am paying.

 

I BLAME IT all on my school. Most of it, anyway. I know the issue is not apportioning blame but coming to terms with my physical self. But my physical self was a poor terrified thing and for that I blame the school with its regimen of gym and organised games. I was hopeless at all of it. And being hopeless at gym and games and being told and made constantly aware of how hopeless I was, the only recourse was to reject the failures of the body and live in the head. Oh, dear female readers, if there be any of you, it was not easy being brought up to be a man in those days.

The gym was a site of terror and humiliation. The ropes hung down from the ceiling, the wall bars reached up to the roof. And you were expected to climb them. I couldn't do it. I don't know whether I had no head for heights, whether in some previous incarnation I had taken a mighty fall and the fear was imprinted. Or whether it was the sheer brutality of the school system, the throw-you-in-and-watch-you-sink attitude. Maybe introduced to it all more gently I could have mastered these things. But there was nothing gentle, and I didn't. This I don't even want to write about. The light yellow brown timber of the floor, the wall-bars, the parallel bars that were winched up and down, the vaulting horse, the lining up in teams, the endless public humiliations. Year after year.

And then the showers. That was another horror. My parents had inculcated a strong sense of shame for the naked body. They were deeply, immovably puritanical in that regard. Indeed, in most regards. So having to plunge into the showers with a class of 20 other naked boys was a disruption of all that programming, a confrontation of all the home conditioning. And then all the brutality of the towel flicking, the pushing around, all the traditions of beating into shape that again has mercifully faded from consciousness. Just another weekly torment, a weekly ritual of humiliation and shame and brutalising that sounds nothing in itself but produced its fears throughout the week, fears of the imminent, recollections of the past, reinforcing each other into a continuum of horror.

 

AMONG THE ENDLESS paradoxes that my father presented was a love of those classic tales of public school, Talbot Baines Reed's The Fifth Form at St Dominic's and the early P.G. Wodehouse stories of Mike and Psmith. I read them all. He used to take me down to the city library and let me fossick around the shelves, digging out these 19th– and early 20th-century volumes, still preserved. It was all very remote from my provincial grammar school, and even more remote from his own experience, having left school at 12. It is a mystery to me why he so enjoyed them. A life he would have liked to have lived? An insight into a world from which he was excluded? A romantic celebration of male friendship? The tours de force of the playing fields would, of course, have appealed to him. He was an excellent all-rounder at sport. For me, those were the less interesting bits: I identified with the outsiders, the persecuted. But I read the books and they must have imprinted something on my consciousness. Success in those tales of public schools was always found on the playing fields. Sometimes there would be a swot, or a fat boy, or a worm, an outsider who was no good at games. But by the end of the book he would have turned and changed and played a mighty innings or scored a winning try and redeemed himself. So there was always hope of redemption.

But not for me. I tried. I was presented with a cricket bat. It was a gift I could have done without. I religiously dosed it with linseed oil but I could never use it with any skill or grace or competence. Dad would throw a cricket ball at me on the back lawn to practice my fielding but I could rarely catch it. I was terrified of the leather-clad ball hurtling at me, at the wicket or on the field. And I could never bowl, either. I had no co-ordination, no confidence.

Football. I remember the endless rubbing of dubbin onto my football boots, which were second-hand and hard and uncomfortable and didn't seem to fit. Maybe I could have managed football. Maybe. But the new headmaster abolished soccer as one of his first acts and introduced rugger. Soccer was proletarian. The public schools played rugby football and he wanted his place in the Headmasters' Conference, that federation of headmasters of non-state schools. He was apparently entitled to membership since the grammar school had retained its board of governors and some notion of independence since it was a direct-grant school rather than a state school. How important these distinctions of status were held to be, so important that I still remember the crucial terminology – direct grant – even when most of the lived details of daily existence at the school have all but totally faded away.

So rugger it was in all its barbarism, and I hated that, terrified to tackle, terrified of being kicked in the head. I couldn't understand any of it, the bizarre rules, the arbitrarily acceptable and unacceptable, the taboos and shibboleths. In the cold and the mud with our arms wrapped round each other as we pushed against each other in the scrum, choking, suffocating. And I always did something wrong.

"Use your head, Wilding," the sports master shouted from the sidelines, running up and down in his tight little shorts with his shiny little whistle in his tight little mouth.

I lowered my head and pushed with it.

There was a howl of rage and scorn.

Why were the instructions so ambiguous? A training in life.

 

SUCCESS AT SCHOOL, as in the school yarns, was found on the playing fields. So success was not mine. Ostracism and outsiderdom were soon my lot. There were others of us. I tried to make alliances, but as with all tyrannical systems, the oppressed are more concerned to ingratiate themselves individually with the tyrants than to form an alliance of opposition. So it was at school, so it was later with my academic colleagues at university. And the school was the great training ground for this fear of resistance, for the kowtowing ingratiation with authority, with its hierarchy of command and status, through the masters, the sporting captains, the prefects.

Much of the time I got myself relegated to linesman rather than being involved in the mayhem on the field. But since I never understood the rules, I was soon demoted from that. Couldn't I have learned the rules? Couldn't I have participated as scorer beside the cricket field? Scorer, scoresman? I cannot even remember the term. Some people of comparable incompetence at least supported the concept of games, the principle of it all, and cheered and waved and did the scoring or whatever. Not me. I put myself in total opposition to all of it, which meant I was in opposition to pretty well the ideological totality of the school. It was obviously a self-selected role. The writer as outsider. Outside everything. Even his own body.

At this point the conventions of writing require some specificity. A vignette. A cameo. The roar from the crowd as the winning try is scored or the batsman is caught out or the six is struck over the pavilion roof. But none of that comes to mind. What I remember is arguing with one of the school prefects about the invasion of Egypt by the British-French-Israeli coalition – an invasion since universally regarded as unjustified, criminal even, as well as incompetent. The prime minister lied about it all to the parliament and the people, Foreign Office chaps went to work wearing black armbands, and the country was, as ever, deeply divided. It was a heated argument, when I should have been watching the house games and cheering on my team. The prefect defended the government. He went on to become head boy, chairman of the Oxford University Conservative Association and one of the researchers helping the mendacious prime minister in question write his memoirs. The last I heard he was a vice-chancellor.

CRICKET WAS FOR THE SUMMER TERM, FOOTBALL FOR WINTER, and in the damp and dismal spring term we had cross-country runs. Out of the school gates, down the back streets, along the canal bank, up some appalling, atrocious slippery hill of red clay, round the deserted aerodrome. I wrote a short story about the horrors of it. I think some poor victim fell, broke a leg, and was left to die. An early exercise in naturalism, if not realism. I published it in an alternative school magazine I had set up with a friend. I wrote another story when I had left school; a story full of sympathy for the rain-drenched, shivering, freezing, sweating, mud-spattered little boys of whom I had been one. But at least cross-country running required no skills. In the end I wasn't so bad at it. I realised after a while that it was better to keep running and get it over with, than to walk and dawdle and drag it out interminably. But it's not something I have ever wanted to do again.

Years later I was back in my home town making a television documentary on my writing. The producer and director looked for filmic settings. They liked that story. It had something visual. They waited for a vile, rainy day and sent a batch of wretched second-formers out on a run and filmed them. I kept away while they filmed that bit. But they showed me the footage. I was appalled. It looked good. It brought back memories. Nothing, indeed, seemed to have changed much. But my attack on the system had only served to reassert it. I had left the school and was no longer forced into cross-country runs. An excerpt from my story had even appeared in the official school history. But in making the documentary, I had been instrumental in sending out yet another generation of shivering schoolboys into the misery of mud and rain and an afternoon of trudging through them. Such was the price of art. Or at least the price of documentary filmmaking.

 

THE OBSESSION WITH the playing fields of the old school runs parallel with that other English obsession, social class. My father was a manual worker, an ironmoulder. And in that world of class barriers, manual workers were of the lower orders. That inevitably contributed to my alienation from the body. The pressure on me, from my father as well as my mother, was to escape the world of manual labour, to take the path of scholarships, education, grammar school, university and succeed. Success meant not using your hands. The physical was denied, the life of the mind beckoned. In this I did as I was told. That was when the man at the university appointments board assured me that I'd done very well for an ironmoulder's son.

I came to Australia. The sun, the surf, the beaches. The puritan conditioning began to slip away, the class discriminations were less apparent. I had found the seacoast of Bohemia. I spent a lot of time lying on beaches. I became increasingly aware of bodies. But not, I fear, in an especially health-gaining exercise-achieving sort of way.

I had an out-of-body experience that first new year. New Year's Day in Cairns, around dawn. I was up in the upper ether somewhere and looking down at the car beside the beach and the sleeping bags around it. I thought I could see myself, one of the sleeping bags, but when I returned to my body it was to find myself in the back seat of the VW where I had been bundled the night before, still fully clothed.

The '60s. '70s. The literary life. The search for experience, expanded consciousness, transcendence, oblivion. It is all recounted in the fiction I wrote and I shall let it remain there as fiction. And I am not sure that much of it was especially good for the body's health. The '80s. The '90s. Not a lot different, still no exercise.

 

THE NEW MILLENNIUM. There are still the literary lunches. But we start off with a mineral water now. We spend a lot longer considering before we order the second bottle of wine. The coffee is decaffeinated and we do not always have it. The drugs we compare notes on are beta-blockers and anticoagulants and anticholesterol agents and anti-inflammatories.

If I had the choice I would probably do it all again. But I would have more consideration for the body and avoid stress. Try to accept that publishers and universities are the way they are and avoid confrontation. I don't think I gained anything from confrontation. It was just the bad old machismo of the cadet corps and the playing fields, without any of the benefits of bodily exercise. These days I spend a lot of time avoiding stress. And when I feel unwilling or unmotivated to write, I no longer roll a smoke and sit and think about writing. Smoking is prohibited along with so much else. Now I go for a walk and pump some blood through the dear old arteries. I am learning to think about the body lovingly. Giving it some belated care and attention.

"Kayaking," said the acupuncturist, "how about kayaking?".

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review